Friday, November 12, 2010

The Bread of Justice: John Ruskin and Food

In the writings of John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century English writer, art critic, and artist who continuously turned to the observable world and found meaning in everything, it is striking that he never focused exclusively on food or the act of eating. For a man who “was convinced of the vital connections between things, as they bind and blend themselves together,” food and eating, which permeate everyday life, could have served as a means to convey his philosophies.[1] Upon a close examination of his writings, however, it becomes clear that Ruskin did observe the significance of food even as he never wrote extensively on it. While he never focused exclusively on food and eating as a topic, Ruskin did use both literal and figurative food examples to bolster his larger arguments. 

Ruskin sometimes used literal examples of food to support his arguments. For example, in “Modern Painters, III” (1856) Ruskin challenged the use of the words objective and subjective. Rather than adhering to these words, which he regarded as “useless” and “troublesome,” Ruskin asserted that the true nature of a thing is in its power to produce a sensation not the sensation itself.[2] This power is present whether or not a person is around to experience it. To support this argument Ruskin turned to the example of sweetness, writing

I derive a certain sensation, which I call sweetness, from sugar. That is a fact. Another person feels a sensation, which he also calls sweetness, from sugar. That is also a fact. The sugar’s power to produce these two sensations, which we suppose to be, and which are, in all probability, very nearly the same in both of us, and, on the whole, in the human race, is its sweetness.[3]

While dealing with what might be a difficult linguistic and philosophical concept to grasp, Ruskin successfully used a concrete example of food to convey his larger point; this literal example of food thus served to ground his ideas.

Ruskin more often used food in a figurative sense. For example, he described the sky as “human nature’s daily food,” the unimaginative artist as creating art “as simply a matter of recipe and practice as cookery,” the division of labor as causing men to be “broken into small fragments and crumbs of life,” and nations with good art as having “starved for it” and “fed themselves with it, as if it were bread.”[4] In “Modern Painters, V” (1860) Ruskin again used a food example to defend his argument:

It is the curse of every evil nation and evil creature to eat, and not be satisfied. The words of blessing are, that they shall eat and be satisfied. And as there is only one kind of water which quenches all thirst, so there is only one kind of bread which satisfies all hunger—the bread of justice, or righteousness; which hungering after, men shall always be filled, that being the bread of heaven; but hungering after the bread, or wages, of unrighteousness, shall not be filled, that being the bread of Sodom.[5]

In this case, Ruskin is not concerned with real bread and water but rather what the act of consumption symbolizes. The bread and water are significant in what they represent, not as actual foodstuffs. This figurative example helps the reader understand Ruskin’s larger argument of the essay—that one must resist materialism and instead strive for righteousness.

In his literal and figurative food examples, Ruskin most commonly referenced bread, water, and sugar—three basic substances that any reader could relate to—as well as the shared experience of eating. While food was not Ruskin’s primary focus, the examples he used throughout his writing strengthened his arguments. In his attempts to get the audience to truly see the world as it is, Ruskin’s use of food and eating offers one means to engage the reader and make his arguments accessible.

[1] Dinah Birch, “Introduction,” in John Ruskin: Selected Writings, ed. Dinah Birch (New York: Oxford, 2004), xxvi.

[2] John Ruskin in John Ruskin: Selected Writings, 68-69.

[3] Ruskin, 69.

[4] Ruskin, 9, 43, 85, 98.

[5] Ruskin, 138.

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